Indian gender ratio worsens—yet all is not bad

India’s national census results were out back in February. And while it shows a much expected rise in population making us well nigh the world’s most populous nation, contributing nearly 17.5% and with a mere one million short of the Chinese, we have something else to think about: female feticide.

Over the past years, our male child to female child ratio–given as girls per 1,000 boys–has been well below the average of 952. In the 1992 census we were at 945 and in 2001 we fell to 927. Ten years later, we are at a mere 914 girls per 1,000 boys.

[Economic success] seems to spread son preference to places that were once more neutral about the sex composition of their children.

While the worst state of the lot happens to be Haryana at an alarming 830 per 1,000 ratio, demographic studies suggest that this biased outlook is spreading to states that were once never particular about such things, giving us something more to think of.

As demographer Alaka Basu puts it, “[Economic success] seems to spread son preference to places that were once more neutral about the sex composition of their children.” The overall result points to such worsening in, as The Economist reports, all but eight of India’s 35 states.

Some might wonder is this is not a biological phenomenon. Indeed biology says we ought to have more boys being born than girls owing to something as simple as the possible XY and XX chromosomal combinations. But even this approximation, as I have said earlier, puts an acceptable average ratio at 952 per 1,000. Even our census 30 years ago was way lower than that. What then seems to be the problem?

Slapping the father on the back and saying ‘you’re a lucky man’ is hint enough.

These missing girls that form biologically but never come onto the Earth owe their misfortune to bribe-happy doctors who, though it is illegal, agree to determine the gender of the child prior to its birth for amounts as small as INR600. What is more is that there exists no hint of their actually doing this as the previously mentioned report in The Economist suggests, slapping the father on the back and saying ‘you’re a lucky man’ is hint enough. And then, pat comes abortion.

However, there seems to be a ray of hope even in these census results. Over the years, as the Indian government carries out sample surveys, we get a chance to take a closer look at what is actually happening in the ten years over which the regular census is conducted. The 2003-05 figures suggest 880 girls; the 2004-06 figures, 892; and the 2006-08 figures show 904 girls; all per 1,000 boys.

This is a clear, even if only an optimistic, indication that while the girl child ratio is below average and is falling, it is falling at gradually decreased rates.

This begs the question, is the nation’s outlook broadening? Or perhaps the sample surveys are not as reliable as we think? They might, as experts put it, show us a change in India’s attitude towards daughters. But it is wrong to think that these falling ratios are causing daughters to be valued more. The Economist reports how, with rising wealth, dowries are rising promptly. This is, in fact, spreading to states down south, like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where this habit was rarely, if ever, witnessed. A skewed ratio such as this, say sociologists, will encourage abuse of sorts, including trafficking, drugging, beating and killing: a pitiable state no doubt.

The general worry that the latest census has brought in is that India will move slowly, but–as it appears now–surely, towards China’s ratio which happens to be far lower, at 833 girls per 1,000 boys. The main reason for this being, not the states like Punjab and Haryana which have a history of son-preference, but Northeastern and Southern states that, shockingly, have taken to this new trend when they had no previously documented practice of preferring sons to daughters.

This leaves one thinking: what might the reason for this be? No matter how optimistic we are, will the situation improve by the 2021 census? And how can we help in the process?

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